St. Paul writes to the congregation in Corinth: “For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord…” (2 Corinthians 4:5).
The great fear that I have for the wider Church is that we lose sight of Christ’s mission which he has given to us of proclaiming him to all nations, particularly the Church as she exists in America and Europe. It’s so easy to get caught up in other things which take away from, or overshadow, this mission of proclaiming “Jesus Christ as Lord.” I’m guilty of it myself.
There are many things of “ourselves” which can put Christ in the background and other things in the foreground. I think a short list might, perhaps, consist of personalities, rules (loosely defined), and distractions.
It’s easy and tempting to get wrapped up in the personalities within the Church: pastors, leaders, congregants. Maybe we focus on the pastor and who he is, rather than on the proclamation of Christ. Maybe the pastor himself focuses more on himself than on Christ. Maybe we shy away from the Church because we don’t like the some of the people in the congregation. Maybe if we’re in a leadership position then church becomes more about having that position than about proclaiming Christ.
I also mentioned rules, loosely defined, as a thing that can get in the way of the Church’s proclamation of Jesus Christ as Lord. What I mean by rules are things like the internal regulation of the Church, like who’s doing what each week, where things go in the building, when to do what, how to do what. The point I’m trying to make is that oftentimes the logistics of keeping a congregation running can overwhelm the witness.
Then, of course, there are many distractions within the Church. In as much as the church is also an earthly organization, there always exist concerns about money, buildings, and politics. In fact, there is an awful lot of politics within the church as an organization; there are certain Christian blogs I can’t ready anymore because it seems like the majority of the content is focused on church politics which, quite frankly, most people don’t care anything about and which simply serves to drive people away from the Church and dilutes the proclamation of Jesus Christ as Lord.
There’s also the wider political landscape that is distracting for the Church. National politics in America have become more contentious and people sometimes allow political differences to divide the Church and drive a wedge between the body of Christ. When the Church ought to be witnessing to Christ, too often its people get involved in acrimonious political disputes. Sometimes people even say things to other Christians that they ought not to say to their worst enemies.
There’s also another form of distraction, which is a tough one to talk about, because it straddles a fine line of caring deeply about your own theology and browbeating others who don’t share the same view, particularly people of other denominations. What I mean is that oftentimes we spend a lot of time talking about what we think other Christians believe and denigrating them for their errors without even really engaging them in conversation to learn what they actually have to say. On the internet I see Protestants stating what Catholics believe and Catholics stating what Protestants believe and both sides sometimes getting really angry about it. Many times also, Lutherans don’t really fit into the Protestant “bucket” so we get painted with a brush that’s too broad.
However, if we could all take a step back and recognize first that we are all Christians and have the same Christ as our Lord, then we can, perhaps, calm down a bit and engage each other in conversation and learn what the other groups really believe instead of what we think they believe. We might then better appreciate the fact that we’re all part of the body of Christ, despite our differences. It helps to remember that there’s the “big C” Church, so to speak, and also the “little c” churches. We confess in the Creeds that we believe there is one holy, universal Church. Why is this an article of faith? Because we don’t see the Church united on earth. Instead, we see the visible churches of congregations, denominations, and other organizations. And we see division and differences. Yet, in the end, we still believe that despite all these divisions and differences all believers are part of the one and same Church, and that Christ knows who are his; this is invisible to us, but seen by him.
I’ve found C. S. Lewis’ analogy of the Church on earth to be helpful on this point. He writes in Mere Christianity that when a person first comes to faith, he enters into the hall of faith, so to speak. Along this hall are many doors labeled with various names: Catholic, Baptist, Lutheran, Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian, Eastern Orthodox, etc… (and, I might add, “non-denominational” since this is essentially a denomination in its own right, most often aligned with Southern Baptist teaching). A person may peek in a number of these doors and find that some or most of them do not feel like home. Eventually, though, he will find one that “fits” and enter into it. Many others will also enter into the hall, but find themselves at home in different doors. Yet, all came through the same hall and all are part of the same household of faith.
Christian denominations have very real and significant theological differences from one another. Yet, we must not forget that we are united by one Lord, one faith, one Baptism (Ephesians 4:5). We don’t need to be so acrimonious amongst ourselves, particularly since the rest of the world is only too happy to see the Church divided and at war with itself. We can disagree, keep our distinctives, teach, guide, learn from each other, and gently rebuke if needed, but needn’t be hostile in the process. We wouldn’t cut off our own limbs to spite ourselves, yet many within the Church seek to do that to others within the body of Christ.
In Christ’s word to St. John in Revelation, he gave John letters to the churches in Asia rebuking them for various things: forsaking their first love, allowing false teaching, being lukewarm. I think that the things I mentioned above can cause the church to get to the point where it exists just for itself and its preservation, rather than being Christ’s witnesses on earth and engaging with the world. At that point it then falls into the errors that Christ mentioned.
All is not lost, however. Christ has not left us to fend for ourselves. He is still with us in Word and Sacrament to guide, teach, rebuke, and defend. He has poured out the Holy Spirit also to bring us to faith and keep us in faith.
As St. Paul continues in Corinthians:
“For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you.”
We are but jars of clay, as Paul notes. And yet God is working through us. You have the light of Christ within you so that you may shine it to others. You will encounter all the difficulties that Paul mentions, the Church herself will be tempted and battered, and yet you will be victorious because Christ is already victorious over sin and death and evil and he has given you his victory as your own. So, do not despair when you see yourself being taken in by the things I mentioned earlier; realize that this is the fallen nature of the world, repent, and then let the light of Christ shine from you.
The Church exists because of Christ. She is his bride and his body, so he shares everything with her, and she gives glory to him as more are incorporated into this body. You are the Church, you are the light of the world and salt of the earth; and the world needs you. Amen.
(Image: Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, 1886, By Henryk Siemiradzki – wikipaintings, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=895163 )